In 2013, like 1977–79, the Navy’s plans for CVNs are coming under intense scrutiny. But, unlike Carter wanting alternatives to CVNs, the Obama administration has remained steadfast in its decision to sustain 11 CVNs and ten carrier air wings and continue with the next-generation Ford (CVN-78) class—even in the face of excruciating fiscal cuts.
Good enough. However, critics point to the “unaffordable” cost of the Navy’s program, capped at $12.8 billion for the first of the Ford class. But that figure includes about $3.3 billion in non-recurring costs. Factor these out, and CVN-78’s cost will be approximately $9.5 billion—still a high-visibility item as the Navy works to meet sequestration “bogeys.” These upfront costs provide for increased high-technology systems that would generate some $5 billion in reductions in total acquisition and ownership cost over the 50-year lifetimes of each of the ten Ford carriers, compared to in-service CVNs.
This also plays to the Chief of Naval Operations’ “payloads over platforms” initiative. “In addition to being more affordable,” Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert explained, “this decoupling of payload development from platform development will take advantage of a set of emerging trends in precision weapons, stealth, ship and aircraft construction, economics, and warfare.”
His number-one example of the payload-centric approach was the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), deactivated in December 2012 after 51 years of operations. “The Enterprise was conceived in the 1950s to deal with a growing Soviet threat,” Greenert wrote. “At the time our national strategy was to contain the Soviet Union. . . . But times change,” he acknowledged, “and so do trends in economics, technology, and warfare.”
Finally, carrier Cassandras worry about vulnerabilities to advanced weapons, including anti-carrier ballistic missiles. However, one aspect of the “carriers are vulnerable!” argument, particularly the Chinese DF-21 ballistic-missile threat, is that while the ship’s weaknesses are continuously trumpeted, there is scant mention that everything else that floats has similar, if not even greater limitations. This includes platforms on the various lists of options if the Navy were to stop building carriers. It also ignores defenses—e.g., the cruise- and ballistic-missile defensive capabilities of the Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers—that aim to defeat tomorrow’s threats. Finally, land bases, which never move, are even more open to attack than mobile naval forces at sea.
Not long after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the new defense guidance and the “strategic pivot” to Asia and the western Pacific, he stated: “The carriers play a major role in our force, not only today but they will play an important role in the future.” While a Semper CVN! bumper sticker might be a tad overreaching, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers do look to remain at the nexus of the Fleet, at least as far forward as we can see today.